New Zealand Told Hands Off Asylum Seekers

NZ told hands off asylum seekers

4:00 AM Thursday Jul 8, 2010

Amnesty International has joined calls for New Zealand to avoid being roped into supporting Australia's overseas asylum-seeker processing centre proposal, and says those at the centre of discussions are not political pawns.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said this week that her Government intended cracking down on the people smugglers who transport asylum seekers to Australia, and that she had been in discussions with East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta about the possibility of setting up a processing centre in his country.

Prime Minister John Key confirmed Ms Gillard had spoken to him about supporting such an initiative.

He said people-smuggling was a realistic threat to NZ and while a regional solution made sense, further discussions were needed.

“We are supportive of Australia looking for a solution, but it's also very important we lay out our bottom line – no increase in the number of refugees we would take under the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] process,” he said. That number stands at 750 a year.

There has been split debate in Australia and New Zealand about how to deal with asylum seekers, but an Amnesty NZ spokeswoman, Margaret Taylor, said yesterday that most had genuine reasons to seek refuge and should not be used as political pawns.

Both countries had an obligation under international conventions to protect asylum seekers fleeing violence and persecution, and who might have a genuine refugee claim, she said.

Ms Taylor echoed calls from Labour and the Greens about a processing centre being an unlikely solution and warned against any return to the former Australian policy of mandatory offshore detention, known as the Pacific Solution, where detainees were left in often inhumane conditions with little access to assistance.

Green Party immigration spokesman Keith Locke said New Zealand should not play any role in processing asylum seekers overseas.

“It would be unfortunate if New Zealand gave legitimacy to a regional centre on Timor-Leste that was really just another Australian detention camp,” he said.

Labour leader Phil Goff said that New Zealand needed to be cautious about joining Australian debates on the issue, especially when that country was leading into an election – a situation where decisions were not always made with long-term goals in mind.

All three said it was unrealistic to think boat people might target NZ, considering its isolation.